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Performances

Sir Bryn Terfel [Photo courtesy of Harlequin Agency Limited]
07 Jun 2018

Bryn Terfel's magnetic Mephisto in Amsterdam

It had been a while since Bryn Terfel sang a complete opera role in Amsterdam. Back in 2002 his larger-than-life Doctor Dulcamara hijacked the stage of what was then De Nederlandse Opera, now Dutch National Opera.

Bryn Terfel's magnetic Mephisto in Amsterdam

By Jenny Camilleri

Above: Sir Bryn Terfel [Photo courtesy of Harlequin Agency Limited]

 

So it was something of an occasion when he returned this week for a concert version of La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz at the Concertgebouw. Terfel was certainly worth the wait, but there was more to enjoy.

La Damnation de Faust is based on Part One of Goethe's Faust, but is not completely faithful to it. For one thing, as betrayed by the title, Faust is damned in the end. He signs off his soul to Méphistophélès, not in exchange for youth and earthly pleasures, but to save Marguerite's soul. She is condemned to death after accidentally killing her mother by giving her too much sleeping draught. Why is Faust damned when he signs off his soul for such an altruistic reason? One could devote hours pondering this eschatological conundrum, time which would be better spent listening to Berlioz, who paints magnificent frescos of heaven and hell, with big slices of human futility and misery in-between. The composer called his creation a "légende dramatique", a vague enough description to cover the different forms it takes: opera, oratorio, symphonic poem. It's a masterpiece of incredible versatility with prominent roles for the orchestra and chorus.

Under their chief conductor Marc Soustrot, the Malmö Symphony Orchestra beautifully brought out the various facets of the score, from the gossamer texture of the ballet music to the blood-curdling tumult of the Ride to the Abyss. There were some slippery pitches during Faust's opening aria, "Le vieil hiver", and some drooping in the sustained accompaniment of his Invocation to Nature. Overall, the playing was more precise in the purely orchestral passages, such as the opera's megahit, the Hungarian March. Perhaps more rehearsal time was needed with the singers for that last bit of polish. Nearer perfection was the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir. A youthful sounding alto section gave an attractive lightness to the mixed choruses. After deftly cavorting through the carousing songs, the men sang a splendid Pandemonium. And in the final scene the women welcomed Marguerite in heaven with soft radiance, tapering their vibrato to make up for the absence of a children's choir. Deservedly, the choir stole a big chunk of the final applause.

Besides the return of Bryn Terfel to Amsterdam, this performance also marked the overdue debut of mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch at the Concertgebouw. She was in great form as Marguerite, her voice warm and graceful and with a lovely sheen to the upper register. The King of Thule aria had poise and simplicity. Taken at a deliberate pace, "D'amour l'ardente flamme" was a poignant duet with the fantastic cor anglais solo. Koch returns to Amsterdam later this year to appear at Dutch National Opera for the first time, singing Jocaste in George Enescu's Oedipe. Paul Groves gave a mixed performance as Faust. The tenor had the necessary heft for the role, but his ascents to the high notes were bumpy, causing strain in the love duet. He seemed most comfortable when singing fairly loudly and sounded best in "Nature immense", which requires broad phrasing and doesn't go above high A. Bass-baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer was rock solid of pitch and comely of tone as Brander. The student only shows up at the inn to sing the Song of the Rat and the role is far too paltry when it's so well cast.

Berlioz's Méphistophélès makes no studied attempts to insinuate himself into Faust's life. He merely shows up and takes charge; Faust is too exhausted from his ennui to protest. The devil's persona remains the same throughout, but Terfel cannily contoured the character with subtle shifts in temperament. He started off blasé, with an offhand rendition of the absurd Song of the Flea. Then he summoned a vision of Marguerite for the sleeping Faust with a benign, balmy "Voici des roses". While orchestrating Marguerite's seduction, he smirked his way through the mocking serenade "Devant la maison". Mission accomplished, his booming voice took on a menacing edge. By the time Mephisto summons his two horses for the ride to hell, Terfel was a vocal cyclone. Naturally, the voice has lost some of its previous gloss, but the distinctive timbre, dynamic facility and commanding sonority are all still there. Then there were the priceless Terfel touches: meaningfully rolled Rs, suggestive pianos, nasal resonance for dramatic effect. Faced with such force of personality and voice, anyone would sign a pact with the devil without reading the small print.

Jenny Camilleri


Cast and production information:

Faust - Paul Groves, tenor; Marguerite - Sophie Koch, mezzo-soprano; Méphistophélès - Sir Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone; Brander - Edwin Crossley-Mercer, bass-baritone. Conductor - Marc Soustrot. MDR Leipzig Radio Choir. Malmö Symphony Orchestra. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, on Monday, 4th of June, 2018.

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